The Olympics end today with plenty of spectacular achievements and just as many spectacular failures.
As much as we can celebrate people who have won multiple awards, such as British middle-distance runner Mo Farah, the bulletproof U.S. basketball teams, and Michael Phelps, there were ten occasions this Olympiad for which countries/delegations won their first gold medals.
One of them is the collective “independent” team, although the team member who competed under the Olympic flag wasn’t a citizen fleeing war. Oddly enough, that winner was a soldier in the Kuwaiti army, Fehaid Al Deehani. Kuwait was suspended by the International Olympic Committee because of undue government interference, so he marched into the opening ceremonies alongside refugees from South Sudan Syria, and other nations. Al Deehani won his medal in double trap shooting with a 26-24 win over Italian shooter Marco Innocenti.
Also finding gold on the shooting range was Hoang Xuan Vinh, who won the 10-meter air pistol event for Vietnam.
A number of new medalists were identified through hand-to-hand combat. Judoka Majlinda Kelmendi won in the 52-kg weight class for Kosovo, which was only recognized by the IOC about two years ago. In taekwando, Cheick Sallah Junior Cisse won for Cote D’Ivoire in the men’s 80-kg class, and Ahmad Abughaush was the best at 68-kg.
In track, Tajikistan’s Dilshod Nazarov won the men’s hammer throw. Also, Ruth Jebet won the 3,000-meter steeplechase for Bahrain. Oddly enough, for the millions of dollars the oil kingdom spent on naturalizing athletes for its team, that was the only gold medal won.
There was one wonderful first-time medal which showed the value of role-modeling. As a youth swimmer, Joseph Schooling had his picture taken with Michael Phelps, who was in the midst of extending his legend at the 2008 Olympics. In the 2016 100-meter butterfly, Schooling beat Phelps to the wall in Olympic-record time.
Fiji, who was ranked as the No. 1 team in the world in Rugby Sevens, showed why. In the return of the sport to the Olympics (albeit in its reduced format), Fiji won its first gold medal with a 43-7 win over Team GB, which is interesting, given the fact that it was a British prep school that lent its name to the game back in 1845.
The last of the 10 inaugural gold medalists is Monica Puig, a tennis player from Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has given the U.S. and Olympic sporting cultures international-caliber athletes in many fields, including basketball, baseball, and boxing. Indeed, Puerto Rico is one of the few teams which have ever given the U.S. men’s basketball team trouble, losing by only one point in 1976 and beating them in 2004.
Puerto Rico is in an interesting place when it comes to international competition. It is one of four United States commonwealths or possessions with their own Olympic committees. While American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam accompanied Puerto Rico to the Olympics, the Northern Mariana Islands and the District of Columbia did not.
As much as public imagination is stoked by people and teams that can win over and over again, first-time Olympic champions lift the spirits of a people.
And isn’t that what the Olympics are about?